Front-row seats are hard to come by during New York Fashion Week, even for the most connected fashion mavens. So when Stephen Courter, a partner at the design house Ohne Titel, got a call from his assistant that a woman from Boston named Marilyn Riseman had arrived at his show and should be seated in the front row, he scoffed.
“I said, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ And then I saw her,” Courter recalled. “We immediately made her front row.”
No matter where she goes, 85-year-old Riseman commands attention from fellow tastemakers, many of them a fraction of her age. This time of year, with parties and galas filling the calendar, the society doyenne — immediately identifiable for her black bobbed hair, exotic make-up, and jaw-dropping wardrobe — may be the most in-demand and recognizable guest in the city.
“There is nobody currently, nor will there be, anybody who will be able to replace her,” said Bill Emery, owner of the South End nightclub 28 Degrees. “She spans the generations. You have everyone from teenagers to her contemporaries who are drawn to her.”
She is a true local institution. The daughter of infamous Boston bookmaker and nightclub owner Harry “Doc” Sagansky, Riseman has been rubbing elbows with the wealthy and connected since her youth, and later made a name for herself as a fashion boutique owner and party planner. But it may be her wicked sense of humor and abiding love of style that have made her a mainstay of the city’s social scene for decades.
When the Boston Design Center held an exhibition of key pieces from her wardrobe in October, a show that featured five decades of luxe designs from couturiers like Yohji Yamamoto and Sonia Rykiel, Riseman held court as a steady stream of fans approached to have their picture taken with her. The socialite found it all quite amusing.
“I was thinking, ‘What the hell do you want my picture for? Where’s it going to hang? In the toilet or something?’ ” Riseman observed wryly after the event. “At least get it framed. That’s what I was dying to tell them.”
And often, tell them she does, in no uncertain terms.
In April, City Councilor Michael Ross was scheduled to present Riseman with a fashion award at the Bulfinch Hotel, but he got a last-minute opportunity to attend a chef’s tasting at the elegant Menton restaurant. So he called Riseman, with whom he’s chummy, and asked if perhaps someone else could present the award?
Her reaction was cheeky but blunt. “[Expletive] that, and get over here,” she said.
Riseman is just as unvarnished when it comes to the ambitious young fashion acolytes who seek her counsel and support. During Boston Fashion Week in September, Riseman was a front-row fixture every night at the Back Bay tent where shows took place. With a trained eye, she scanned the work of local designers, later enlisting many of them to show at her Friday fashion series at the Colonnade Hotel. It’s an important venue for the designers to find potential clients.
“I think it’s necessary to have her in your corner as a designer, because everyone knows who Marilyn Riseman is in Boston, and even outside of Boston. She’s so connected,” said designer Firas Yousif. “With Marilyn, there’s no sugar coating. She either likes something or she does not like something. If she thinks highly of you, she’ll spread the word.”
In her Beacon Hill apartment, lounging in a black leather Chanel ensemble, the tiny Riseman dishes on the Boston social scene with an R-rated tongue and a sharp wit. Always clad in black and white (with occasional bursts of red), Riseman is easy to spot at posh parties with her Louise Brooks bob, white pancake makeup, geranium-red lipstick, and dramatic eyeliner.
The look was developed with her make-up artist, David Nicholas, more than 25 years ago, and she is never seen without it, except by neighbors who might catch her tossing out the trash. Given her unwavering social schedule and bounty of friends — her fur-covered phone never stopped ringing during a recent lunch — it’s a surprise when Riseman confesses she’s actually quite shy. And hard to believe.
“One-on-one I’m fine,” she said, nibbling on a sandwich. “But I won’t get up and speak in front of a group, although I’ve learned to cope. As thoroughly modern Millie as I am, there are some things I’m terrified of — like computers.”
She attributes her shyness to growing up with three older brothers in Brookline, where her interest in fashion was born. As a teenager, she set about emulating the ensembles she saw in fashion magazines. Eventually, her mother told her to steer clear of trends, an edict Riseman follows to this day.
Her father was said to have run Boston’s largest bookmaking operation, a syndicate once estimated to be worth $90 million. Harry “Doc” Sagansky graduated as a dentist from Tufts, but chose instead to run gambling dens, becoming a powerful crime figure and an associate of the legendary politician James Michael Curley. At the ripe old age of 91, Sagansky was imprisoned for refusing to testify before a grand jury. He died in 1997 at 99. Of course, Riseman would much rather discuss her beloved dogs, Max and Missy, than her father’s criminal history.
“I hate that expression,” she said of the word “bookie.” “Bookie to me is a cheeseball. He always had tremendous principle. I felt like he was more principled than men in legitimate business. And surprisingly enough, I was never embarrassed of him.”
Her father was a partner in two Boston nightclubs — the Latin Quarter and Club Mayfair — magnets for some of the biggest names in show business.
“When my father owned the Latin Quarter I met all the top stars of the day,” Riseman said. “I used to have dinner with Frank Sinatra. It’s something I don’t talk about a lot. People just think you’re bragging.”
Because of her father’s wealth and connections, many assumed that Sagansky helped his daughter set up her Newbury Street shop, Apogee, in 1966. Instead, it was her prominent architect husband, William Riseman, who was best known for designing movie theaters across the country.
Apogee was ahead of its time. Instead of a shop filled with rows of clothes on hangers, Riseman curated the merchandise. The front windows were filled with televisions that flickered with images of the clothes.
“My father really didn’t approve of it,” she said. “He thought it was an excuse for me to have clothes. I really wanted to show him. I was so angry.”
And she did show him. She opened five more Apogees around the country. (She closed the stores in 1982 when her husband passed away.)
More than 40 years after opening that first Newbury Street store, Riseman is still interested in cutting-edge fashion — and the fashion scene is still fascinated with Riseman.
After landing in the front row at the Ohne Titel show, she became a star of the design house’s advertising campaign.
“People are finally realizing that fashion doesn’t stop at 35 or 40,” Courter said. “There are these women who have become legendary. We used Marilyn in our campaign because we wanted to show that our clothes are ageless. She can wear pretty much anything and she looks fierce.”
While that may be true, that’s not what keeps her at the center of the social swirl.
“I think [people] are drawn to me partially because of the look,” Riseman said.
“Actually, they’re either drawn to me or scared of me. But I think it’s sincerity that people appreciate. At my age, I don’t have time for bull.”